Millions of workers in China had worked from home for most of February, which was a new experience for many. Now many have returned to the workplaces, with reduced working hours and pay. Still, today, going back to work requires a lot of mental effort. COVID-19’s existence is in the back of everybody’s minds, as health authorities worry about a possible second wave of infections.

Most office buildings and apartments have checkpoints and security personnel in charge of overseeing temperature checks for those who come to the office. The office elevator capacities have been reduced to just five from sixteen. Each day the office spaces, chairs, and desks are disinfected. Employees have to keep their masks on, and group meetings are still avoided in person. Travel to the country is still heavily limited, and so are international business conferences. Thus a lot of businesses are again happening virtually.

Thus it can be said that the entire work-style in China has changed drastically after the pandemic. In most of the other countries, employees could still be working from home for the whole month of May. But employers need to prepare a planned program in place to help keep the workers be safe and efficient once the office is fully reopened.

If you are an employer, considering the following questions can help solve a lot of confusion.

1. When should you reopen the office?

You will receive advice from their local health departments and the government on when to return to the office. But, mostly, it will depend on the authority’s decisions and the nature of your business.

2. How do you ensure that employees feel safe returning to work?

It would be a risk for companies to expect workers to return to work once constraints on the lockout have been lifted. It is the most significant health crisis of our generation, and you must recognize that all your employees continue to have a traumatic experience. Thus it will take some time to convince the workers before they return to work.

Two things are critical here.

  • First, you must stand up to their safety expectations. Take the time to know and understand the concerns of your employees. After that, take a phased approach and bring them back in batches, so that your employees will get to hear from their peers about the safety measures in practice.
  • Second, you must consider a sudden shutdown scenario and keep exit plans ready if any of your employees’ test positive. It will boost confidence that you are taking their health concerns seriously.

3. Are you already in a hurry to bring your employees back to the office?

But, what if some of your employees still don’t want to return so soon?

Any return to work effort should a gradual process rather than setting a national “go back to the office” day, said Erik Gordon, a professor at the University of Michigan’s Ross School of Business. And it’s true.

You need to be sensible and listen to why some of your employees are still not okay to get back. Their concern might be unique and require special consideration. There may be health reasons for not wanting to return to the office. Perhaps they do have COVID-19 symptoms. They might live with a loved one who has a weakened immune system, or they might have to look after their kids. Because if schools and daycares don’t open, parents can’t leave them alone.

All of these are good reasons, and you need to make provisions accordingly. If they can do the job remotely, then let them continue doing so. If not, you can try to arrange for a leave of absence.

In other cases, your employees might be uncomfortable coming back, even though none of these situations apply. In that case, a temporary hazard pay hike might work.

4. What safety (and privacy) requirements should you take care of?

Employers should adhere strictly to all relevant health standards. Besides, employers must consider the following-

  • Everyone in the workplace should wear protective coverings that include masks, gloves, and coveralls.
  • Encouraging regular body temperature checks in the workplace will become mandatory. You can consider setting up self-reporting procedures for your employees, recognizing their privacy issues. At the same time, you should keep a record of temperature controls or test results, but any medical documents relating to COVID-19 must be kept separate from standard personnel files
  • All the workers should maintain hygiene standards like frequent hand washing, coughing, and sneezing protocols, proper tissue disposal, use of hand sanitizers, and cleaning procedures with disinfectants.
  • Specific changes in the physical workspace design like creating barriers if you have an open design, moving desks to create more distance between employees, limiting the use of shared equipment, and so on, will be necessary.
  • Creating a robust social distancing plan encouraging limited gatherings and flexible meal and break time schedules. There will be no morning meetings with 20 workers, no company recruiting orientations, no business lunches. And handshakes? It may indeed be gone for good.

5. Do you need to re-consider the employment policies?

Probably, yes. Before bringing your employees back to work, review and consider modifications in the employment policies with consideration to unpaid leave, family and medical leave, teleworking, holidays, and paid time off to ensure compliance with applicable law as well as practicality in the post-COVID-19 workforce. Creating a COVID-19 specific employee handbook for use during the post-crisis trauma can be of great benefit.

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